East Bay Restaurants

I learned to really cook in Berkeley, graduating from Kraft Dinner with stuff added to making my own pasta and sauces from scratch. Food consciousness permeates this city, which is a great place to cook as well as eat out. (If you have access to a kitchen while you're there, e-mail me for some pointers on sources.) Competition and consumer awareness keeps quality high. Here is a list purged of places which are not worthwhile (except for a few recent negative experiences I've left in). See also my non-purged list of San Francisco restaurants.

A Cote
One of the early small plates places: no reservations (get there by 5:30 to avoid waiting), same kitchen that serves the more upscale Citron next door. Great frites and flatbreads, but most of the food is good, though lighting is dim, tables are crowded together, and the overwhelming feel is that of a bar serving exceptionally good food instead of a proper restaurant.
Upscale Indian without heaviness of any kind. Menu evolves (slowly) on a seasonal basis; dishes now served "family-style" to share, with individual plates of rice and garnishes. Prix fixe available, but not really much of a bargain. Eating here gives me a warm feeling, when it's not too crowded or rushed. At the head of Solano in Berkeley.
Ba Le
A hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese sandwich joint in a strip mall on San Pablo just north of Central in El Cerrito. The sandwiches are credible, though not as good as at Saigon Sandwich in SF. Papaya salad and fresh spring rolls are available premade, and the cooler contains some Vietnamese bean-and-jelly dessert drinks. A decent option for lunch if you find yourself in the area.
Bay Wolf
Longtime solid Cal-continental restaurant in an old house on Piedmont in Oakland. Think of it as a junior version of Chez Panisse that hasn't quite gotten the press. A good place to take your relatives -- not quite as adventurous as one might want, but there's always duck on the menu, and the house-bottled wines are quite nice. We recently unearthed a "best restaurants" list from twenty-five years ago, and this was one of the few names we recognized.
It was already too noisy as we walked in at six on a Sunday night. Another industrial hard-surfaced California restaurant. The early prix-fixe which we were too late for was potato salad, steamed mussels, and poppyseed cake, for $13. Not very exciting, but a good deal compared to the $12 we paid for seven spears of admittedly perfectly cooked asparagus in vinaigrette. (The tomato soup was good, but not exceptional.) The signature dish here is pork rojo with hominy, a large serving in a deep bowl, with housemade fried tortilla strips and a scoop of guacamole; it was terrific, a dish I will try to recreate at home. Oricchiette with duck ragu was too rich, and the "formaggio tartufo" had lost whatever essence of truffle it once possessed; the thick, chewy pasta and the cheese dominated, meaning the duck was wasted, it might as well have been pork for all the impact it had. Apple/almond crisp with vanilla bean ice-cream wasn't too sweet or rich, but was more soggy than crisp, in fact quite soupy, with the apples a little too firm; it was downright amateur. Service was rushed and inconsistent; sometimes plates were whisked away almost before the last bite, sometimes they sat. Lalime and Rivoli set the standards this restaurant aspires to, but it has some way to go yet: one good dish does not a restaurant make. Quite a disappointment. On Solano in Berkeley.
This Turkish restaurant smack in the middle of the East Indian strip on University below San Pablo in Berkeley still has the elephant pillars and folk figurines left over from the previous inhabitants. There's an all-you-can-eat buffet for $8.99 (a couple of bucks cheaper at lunch), which appears to be mostly stewed vegetables and legumes (a good selection). We ordered off the menu. The meze platter came with four spreads (taramasalata, roasted eggplant, spinach-and-yogurt, cucumber-dill-and-yogurt), plus feta filo "cigars" and thinly-sliced dried spiced beef, all excellent (I would suggest this alone as a decent lunch). We followed that up with four types of kebabs, all of which came with the same sides of rice with raisins and nuts, salad, grilled tomato and grilled pepper; these were also uniformly good. There isn't much ambience (it's as if they sneaked into an empty storefront and set up shop intending to disappear tomorrow) and service is pedestrian, but it's worth braving these for the food, particularly given the lack of Greek competitors in the East Bay.
Cactus Taqueria
Healthy Mexican fast food (order at counter). I could eat here every week. Nice attention to the details (salsas, aguas frescas). Tamales are terrific. Sometimes unattended kids can be a pain. At the head of Solano in Berkeley (preferable), and on College in Oakland.
Cafe Sophia
Very good falafel, moving to #2 on my East Bay list behind Zatar; light, made fresh, properly seasoned. The rest of my meze plate matched it: baba ghanouj with proper smokiness, grilled eggplant salad, hommous, tahini. The pita was a bit of a letdown, rather white-bread and fluffy. Housemade hamentashen were quite good (usually these suck). Tiny place, so get there early, or get takeout and sit under the BART tracks. On Solano in Albany.
Chez Panisse
Downstairs offers quiet perfect prix-fixe meals for forty to sixty dollars (book well ahead); upstairs started out as a simple cafe, but has become Northside Berkeley's upscale canteen, with attitude infecting the staff. Still, go for lunch, ignore the overtones, and have great pizzas, salads, and daily specials constructed from the finest ingredients.
Cafe de la Paz
Great idea, Latin-American cafe-style, but uneven: some dishes are great, others fail to sing. Inexpensive, considering the neighbourhood. On Shattuck Avenue in north Berkeley.
Cafe Rouge
Your best bet in the blossoming Fourth Street area. Emphasis on meat, cooked properly, comfort food with some daring. Large room can be noisy, but service is good, portions ample. Nice meat counter at the back for takeout roast chicken, duck confit, sausage, and charcuterie.
Chaat Cafe
Food like Vik's (not as good) with an atmosphere like Breads of India in its heyday (though not as good as that either). The lamb wrap is a serious amount of good food for the price. Conveniently located on University near MLK Way. More locations in San Francisco.
Clay Pot Seafood
San Pablo near Solano in Albany. Modest Chinese food with Shanghai specialties. Some dishes great (braised eel, smoked fish); others merely OK. Convivial service, low prices.
Dona Tomas
There are scads of Mexican places in the Bay Area, but only a handful display the truly vibrant complexity of the cuisine. This one did, for a while. Pumpkin seeds roasted with garlic and chiles are a great foil for real margaritas; tamales are light, thin wrappers of masa around a bean filling with mole negro; carnitas are probably the best I've had anywhere, deeply browned and moist. Alas, the kitchen has ceased to innovate (my eight-year-old noticed the mole that came with the chips was the same as on her enchiladas), the maitre'd is surly and unhelpful, service is perfunctory, and this place is currently below our threshold. Tell me it's gotten better, please; I really want it back.
Tiny place! The kitchen takes up most of it, leaving enough room for a half-dozen small tables, none seating more than four. In good weather they may be able to fit a couple of tables on the sidewalk. No reservations, so get there when they open at 5:30, or be prepared to either stand outside and wait or (as we saw two parties doing) berate and bother the staff until they agree to let you squeeze into a too-small table. The menu is also tiny; it fits onto a half-sized sheet of paper, three or four appetizers, a few main pastas and pizzas, with wines on the back (all available by the glass, and served in sensible tumblers). Portions, of Italian-inspired food (appetizers, pizzas, pasta) are small but tasty. Worth a visit, just go early.
Fonda Solana
Late entry in the small-plates bar category; food from Mexico, Peru, and other parts south. Food is tasty enough (as you'd expect from a Lalime's offshoot) but be warned, it's more a bar than an eatery.
Gelateria Naia
The texture is wrong (more superpremium ice cream instead of gelato) and they don't always have the black sesame, my favourite. But the flavours of nocciola and dark chocolate are good. Fruit flavours are less successful. On Shattuck in downtown Berkeley.
Downscale Japanese on San Pablo across from Kermit Lynch and Cafe Fanny. Nice homey atmosphere, long-time staff and long-time regulars, but the food is uneven.
Grand China
Inexplicably popular Chinese place in downtown Berkeley. The food's okay, but what really sells is the nostalgia for when Chinese food was the cheap and delicious alternative.
Asian-inspired small plates place, with extensive sake menu, including flights. Menu seems to have stalled, the curse of many a small plates place. How do these places survive? On College near Alcatraz.
Next door to Bay Wolf and living up to its standards. A single-page menu of French standards interpreted by a husband-and-wife team with great CVs, served on the narrow bottom floor of an old house. One of those low-key restaurant experiences that creep up on you until you float out the door totally satisfied. Not cheap, though. On Piedmont in Oakland.
University Avenue near San Pablo in Berkeley. Who but a Pakistani expatriate would come to this low-rent corner and eat at this dingy, dim hole in the wall? Well, me, and you, but not too many of us, or they'll water down their bold, spicy tandoori fare. Chicken, lamb, fish, ground meat kabobs, served with rice, roti, yogurt, and cucumber salad.
Katana-ya Ramen
Not just a ramen joint, but a full Japanese menu. Decent, not thrilling; Ryowa is a better bet. On San Pablo in El Cerrito.
Sushi and grilled specials at lunch; robata bar added at dinner. No reservations, so go really early, as it's popular. Lunch specials dwindled in recent years to the point where they're no longer the compelling bargain they were; if you're willing to spend $40/person at dinner, you can eat well, but value is questionable at that point. On Shattuck near Adeline in Berkeley.
La Rose Bistro
I'm a fan of small operations trying for high quality, and I enjoyed my last meal at La Rose better than the first one I had there. The duck strudel works better as an appetizer with less rice in it; my red miso-glazed sea bass was quite good. Not everyone was as happy; the panko-encrusted scallops across the table numbered exactly two, and the pad thai-style noodles that came with it were too sweet. The chef herself served some of our dishes, and came to ask how we were enjoying our meal, always appreciated. I think it would be nice to be a regular here. On Shattuck in downtown Berkeley.
This restaurant (probably like its proprietors) is settling into a rich, comfortable middle age. They're no longer trying to impress us with dazzle and flash, or to bring us in with bargain prix-fixe menus. What we get now is solid, balanced Cal-Med cooking, delivered with low-key grace. I'm no longer worried about this restaurant; it will remain one of our standard destinations. On Gilman in North Berkeley.
Nan Yang
Most Burmese food seems to me to take the worst elements of Indian and Chinese. But the food at Nan Yang, when it works, combines the best of both. Spacious and comfortable room, tablecloths and gracious service. On College Avenue in Oakland.
Nizza La Bella
They're trying to be a small Riviera bistro, and after a lengthy break-in period, they seem to have gotten it mostly right: the narrow booths, the inexpensive menu, the late hours, and a nice mix of comfort foods, leaning heavily on a wood-fired oven (calzone, pizza, macaroni and cheese, beef daube). Interesting cocktail menu. This place is clearly filling a niche; it's quite popular, and becoming more so. On San Pablo just north of Solano in Albany.
O Chame
Japanese inspired, but concentrating on gentle, almost meditative food. Noodles in soup, grilled and steamed food, specialty teas. Austere and peaceful. On Fourth Street in Berkeley.
We haven't actually eaten here in several years; under former Chez Panisse chef Paul Bertolli, this upscale restaurant has focussed on honing the craft of Italian peasant food. Our last meals were uneven; they seem to have gotten quite sparse and perfectionist. Still a must-try if you've never been. On College Avenue in Oakland.
Pearl Oyster Bar
Replaced the not-lamented Red Tractor Cafe on College in Oakland. Started out without reservations, but they now have a reservation service on their website, which I discovered only by chance. We snagged a 5:30 same-day table, but watched parties being turned away throughout our meal. Despite the trendy design, we in our schlumpy clothes were never made to feel unwelcome or out of place. On our first visit it was frustrating to split dishes such as the trio of tartares among five people, so this time we ordered two orders of our selections: spicy tuna poke (with cubes of cucumber in a Korean-style sesame/chili dressing), spring rolls (made with rice paper and briefly deep-fried, containing a fish mousse green with herbs), Maine peekytoe crabcakes (properly made with just enough binding to hold them together), misoyaki black cod (the portobello fritters that came with this were the one part of the meal that didn't work). Desserts at Pearl are unexpectedly good: an heirloom apple and huckleberry crisp with Tahitian vanilla bean gelato ("This is what Bendean's should have been," my wife said), a light, tall Meyer lemon cheesecake, and a hot fudge sundae that beats renditions at Rivoli and Dona Tomas.
A dim sum place, in the same mall as Sushi Zone, with rows of chairs at the entrance for waiting. You'll need them. We arrived at eleven on Sunday and had a 45-minute wait; as we were seated, they were handing out numbers 80 higher than ours. The women pushing the carts are even more English-challenged than usual, so much so that one wonders if it's supposed to be part of the concept. Some nice flavours in unexpected places, but food arrived irregularly (standards har gow and shu mai at the very end, when no one wanted them any more) and overall this was a little too frustrating an experience. Go on weekdays with someone who speaks Cantonese.
Phuping Thai
Joint venture between Thep Phenom (SF) and Berkeley Thai House. The food is good, if a little sweet, and well-presented in a pleasant dining room. For a long while, our best bet for Thai in the East Bay, but recent meals have been pretty standard. In the new Pacific East Mall in Albany, a fascinating destination in its own right.
Chez Panisse in-laws revitalized this basic taqueria, concentrating on high-quality ingredients and impressive consistency. Basic setup is similar to Cactus but the food is not really picante. Currently below our threshold, though very kid-friendly, and open late. On Sixth just south of Gilman in north Berkeley.
Le Regal
A typical Vietnamese menu of vermicelli bowls, pho, and rice plates. The difference here is that the servers are genuinely friendly and helpful (something unheard of in most Vietnamese places). Portions are generous and well-prepared; spring rolls were fresh, crisp, and tasty, vermicelli was properly soaked and separated, lots of mint (could have used some basil and coriander, also). The nuoc cham was too sweet with not enough fish sauce and lime, but that's typical, too. The rice plates that went by looked enormous. A good option in downtown Berkeley (Center near Shattuck in Berkeley).
Rick and Ann's
We're not normally breakfast-out people; we can do a good job of it at home, with little effort. But if you need it, Rick and Ann's is the place to go. Near the Claremont Hotel in south Berkeley. Don't drink their coffee; there's a Peet's next door.
Upscale Cal-Ital without the prices or pretention. A near-perfect neighbourhood restaurant experience, though it could do with more seasonal innovation. On Solano Avenue in north Berkeley.
Ryowa Ramen House
Kobe-style ramen, supposedly; all I know is that the noodles are properly chewy, the broth complex with a hint of spiciness, and this is winter food, because I can't eat it in summer without breaking into a full-body sweat. I usually have the "original ramen"; the vegetarian ramen is also excellent, as is the kimchi in little jars on the table. Skateboard videos on the TV, racks of manga for patrons to read; this place has atmosphere to burn, though perhaps not the atmosphere most people seek. On University near Shattuck in Berkeley.
Saigon City
Interesting things are happening on the block of Telegraph just south of Dwight in Berkeley. The promise of Saigon City's upscale Vietnamese tempted us with memories of Slanted Door back in the early days before it became an institution. For starters, we had imperial rolls (well done), banana flower salad (nice presentation, with a composed salad of shreds of grilled chicken, banana flower, and other ingredients served in a huge petal), and calamari cake (a daily special variation on a deep-fried fish cake). Mains were all good and the portions were generous. Lemongrass chicken was not a typical hasty stir-fry, but had a reddish-brown complex sauce. The clay pot sea bass was properly cooked, with caramelized sauce; we also had daily specials of bo kho (beef shank stew) and red curry duck. Desserts were an unexpected bonus: tiramisu which wasn't soggy or heady with alcohol; kaffir lime creme brulee which had the right ratio of brulee to creme, being served in a wide shallow dish; and a comped vanilla bean flan with the right texture and sweetness (not to excess). The chef came out to chat with us; his mom is in charge of the front room, and was also quite friendly. Quite a find; we'll be back.
Saigon Seafood Harbor
Nothing to do with Vietnam; the name refers to a Hong Kong neighbourhood. This place apparently does good fresh-out-of-the-tank dinners, but we went for dim sum, which was quite good -- certainly better than anything we've had in the East Bay or SF lately. Just north of the Pacific East Mall in Richmond.
Santa Fe Bistro
Center near Shattuck in Berkeley. Offshoot of the classic Santa Fe Bar and Grill serves bargain bistro food at lunch -- well, not the bargain it used to be, but not bad. Food is not stunning, but good value considering the quality. Order at counter, food brought to you. More conventional (and expensive) at dinner.
Shen Hua
On College Avenue near Ashby in Berkeley. Fifteen years after the Sichuan/Hunan craze peaked, someone had the bright idea to revive it, but in a large pleasant room with a modern open kitchen and attentive, efficient service. The food is well-executed if not a revelation (or particularly authentic, for that matter), and prices are quite reasonable for the quantities. Near-clone on Solano in Berkeley, called Kirin.
Former owners (architects by profession) of Cafe Pastoral in Berkeley couldn't stay away from the business and opened this spacious restaurant near Jack London Square in Oakland. The kitchen and service were overwhelmed on the night we went, but food showed promise. I owe these guys for a lot of great meals, so I'll be back someday.
Sushi Ko
Respectable sushi on a traffic island where Shattuck briefly splits into two one-way streets just south of University Avenue in Berkeley. Seems a bit faded, but chirashi sushi at lunch was surprisingly decent, no filler.
Sushi Sho
Many consider this the best sushi in the East Bay. What we had, sitting at the bar and letting the sushi chef (who obviously runs the whole show in this fairly small space) choose, was good but not outstanding. Still, he clearly knows what he's doing and cares, and the calm atmosphere would reward those who choose to become regulars.
Trattoria La Siciliana
Pastas and desserts are great, mains are so-so. Pleasant and desperately popular space (no reservations). On College Avenue (the Elmwood district) in Berkeley.
Uneven tropical food, served in a nice back patio and odd-shaped indoor space. Order carefully and you'll get a good meal. On Piedmont Avenue in Oakland.
The room is clearly high-concept, with a waterfall (down a guiding clear sheet) facing one on entry; altogether more upscale in appearance than Saigon City across the street. Our server didn't quite get it; he seemed more like an engineering student playing at being a server, with a crispness verging on smug. We ordered the roll sampler (customizable by number of people, but we got it for two): mango roll, Unicorn roll, crispy mango prawn, imperial roll, chao zhou roll, prawn spring roll. This came with a total of five dipping sauces (one did double duty) explained to us by the server. All of this fuss actually worked; the rolls and sauces had distinct flavours, and when I got one wrong, it didn't work as well. We also ordered the lotus rootlet salad with prawns, which worked, but wasn't a revelation. The table shared four mains. Five-spice duck mosaic with came with a tower of baby bok choy concealing a duck leg, while the breast had been sliced and arranged. The other three were caramelized bass fillet, "seafood baked" (scallops, prawns, calamari, and vegetables in jasmine rice), and smoked eggplant with scallion, the last one particularly good (even my nine-year-old admitted it, and eggplant is one of the few things she really doesn't care for). Desserts looked unexceptional, so we passed. The food at Unicorn was impressive, and the only reason I don't rank it with Saigon City is that the atmosphere was not as friendly. Unicorn was trying too hard to be a destination; they need to relax a little. We'll still return.
A counter at the back of an East Indian grocery store serving snacks on weekends has expanded into a warehouse space next door and added light meals. You order and pick up at a counter, and dump your disposable dishes into huge garbage bins when you're done. But they've put in decent tables and chairs, they clean them more often, and most importantly, the food has remained terrific despite their popularity and renovations. My younger daughter's favourite, hell, a favourite of all of us, and a must-visit (try the chole bhature on weekdays, or the masala dosa on weekends). On Allston near Fourth Street in west Berkeley.
Wat Mongkolratanaram
Not a restaurant, but a Thai Buddhist Temple whose members volunteer on Sunday mornings to serve food as a fundraiser. You exchange money for refundable tokens, and then line up at various places to get food: one line for green papaya salad mixed and pounded in front of you (worth paying for just to watch it being made), one for fried chicken with sticky rice, one for ripe mango with sweet sticky rice, one for a steam table at which you can get a dozen different Thai dishes (alas, not made by volunteers any more, but indifferent "donations" from local restaurants), and one where they're deep-frying coconut custard cakes. Picnic tables and plastic cutlery are available. Inexpensive and for the most part delicious, but get there before 10:30 or you'll be standing in line a long time. (Eating Thai food for Sunday brunch is not at all difficult.) On Russell near Ashby in Berkeley.
Excellent falafel sandwich, perhaps a bit pricey at $6.75 (lunch) but large and quite tasty, with hints of anise and a good mix of vegetables, expertly wrapped in crisp lavash. Don't expect a quick meal; the place was nearly empty but we waited over half an hour. The organic, homegrown ideology leads me to suspect that the food is made pretty much from scratch to order, so it's a good thing that the place isn't large. Shattuck at University in Berkeley.
Zax Tavern
SF restaurant relocated to the East Bay because the owners were tired of the commute. Casa de Eva and Mazzini went under at this location, but this one may stay, offering solid comfort food and friendly service. Signature dishes include twice-cooked goat cheese souffle (surprisingly light), lamb stew with winter vegetables, panko-crusted fish, and warm apple galette with caramel ice cream. Verging on complacent, but a place to take your fussy relatives. On Telegraph in south Berkeley.

Former entries, recently removed because of loss of quality: Bobby's Backdoor BBQ, Breads of India, China Village, Garibaldi, Jimmy Bean.